External Humility

Pursuing Christlikeness was of paramount importance to committed believers in past centuries. Strategies for developing the fruit of the Spirit and Christlike virtue prompted much discussion and analysis, both verbal and written. They painstakingly considered all facets of these character qualities to determine how best to live them out in their daily lives. Quite frankly, many of them make us look like rank amateurs in comparison. We can learn much from them.


Our pursuit of Christlikeness becomes more intentional when we focus on one specific character quality at a time. Let’s take a look at what Francis de Sales wrote in his book An Introduction to the Devout Life (published in 1608),1 on one aspect of humility he terms “external humility:”

“The kestrel [a falcon] has a peculiar property of frightening away birds of prey with its looks and cries, for this reason the dove seeks to live near it for safety; likewise, humility repulses Satan and preserves in us the gifts and graces of the Holy Spirit.

“We call vainglory that which we seek for ourselves, either for that which is not in us, or being in us, is not our own, or being in us and our own, is not worthy to be glorified in. Noble birth, the favor of the great, popular esteem, are not in ourselves, they come either from our forefathers or from the opinion of others. Some people are proud and conceited because they have a fine horse, a feather in their hat, or are magnificently attired, but who cannot see the absurdity of this, since if anyone has reason to be proud it surely is the horse, the ostrich, or the tailor! And how very contemptible it is to rest our hope of esteem in a horse, a feather, or a garment!

“Another thinks of his well-trimmed beard and mustache, or his well-curled hair, his delicate hands, or his accomplishment in dancing, music, and so on, but is it not very contemptible to try to enhance one’s worth or reputation through such foolish and frivolous things? Others, who have acquired a little science, demand the respect and honor of the world on that account, as if everyone must learn what they know and bow before those who teach it. Such men we call pedants [those excessively concerned with minor details]. Others pride themselves on their personal beauty, and think that everyone is admiring them: all of them in their turn are utterly silly, foolish, and impertinent, and their glory in such empty things we call vain, absurd, and frivolous. …

“In order to know whether someone is really wise, learned, generous, and noble, observe whether these make him humble, modest and submissive. If so they are genuine, but … in proportion to the show they make, they are less worthy. … Those virtues and attractive qualities which have their root in pride, self-sufficiency, and vanity, have merely an outward show of excellence, but no substance. …

“All the value of beauty is gone when its possessor is self-conscious; to be pleasing it should be forgotten; and science becomes contemptible when it is puffed up and degenerates into pedantry. … Honor means something when willingly offered, but becomes contemptible when it is sought after, demanded, or extracted. … Worldly honors are acceptable to those who receive them indifferently without resting in them or seeking them eagerly, but they become very dangerous and hurtful to those who cling to and take delight in them.

“The desire and pursuit of virtue tend to render us virtuous, but the desire and pursuit of honors tend to make us odious and despicable. A really great mind will not waste itself on such empty goods as rank, honor, and form. It has higher pursuits, and leaves these other pursuits for the weak and vain. He who can procure pearls will not be satisfied with shells, and those who aim at [Christlike] virtue do not trouble themselves about honors.”

Phil 2:3. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. (NIV)

It’s pretty easy to convert Francis de Sales message to our world. Much of what he says is directly applicable to today. Clothes, jobs, cars, knowledge, cell phones, physical beauty, physical prowess, and more, can all be sources of pride.

But who among us can boast of the next latest-and-greatest cellphone or car or sports watch? If anyone has reason to be proud, says Francis, it is the cellphone, automobile, and sports watch manufacturer, not us. We are simply the ones who decided to exchange our hard-earned cash for these goods. Our pride in such things is short lived, sometimes for just a few months. When the next model is released, the one we have is simply old.

A really great mind will not waste itself on such empty goods as rank, honor, and form. It has higher pursuits, and leaves these other pursuits for the weak and vain. He who can procure pearls will not be satisfied with shells, and those who aim at Christlikeness do not trouble themselves about honors. – Francis de Sales

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Dr. Rob Oberto is the award-winning author of “Intimacy With God: Extraordinary miracles that opened a skeptic’s heart to God” available from Amazon.

©2017 Rob Oberto, All Rights Reserved.

1 Excerpt from An Introduction to the Devout Life, TAN Books, Charlotte, NC (www.tanbooks.com) used with permission. (Some paraphrasing of excerpted material was performed for clarity.)

2 thoughts on “External Humility

  1. I just added the Francis Dr Sales book you referenced to my wish list. I haven’t read his work before, but the passages you quote stirred my spirit. I so appreciate how Christian writers of past generations pierce my spirit with depth & powerful use of words.

    Thanks for this post, Rob. I am going to save this one.

    1. I usually read a chapter, they’re short, to start my daily devotionals. He has great insight and depth which comes from experience, not just study. He was a Catholic bishop in Geneva when he wrote the book, so that tradition is apparent in about 5%, or less, of his writing. I really like how his outline for personal devotions has a built-in plan to work on a specific Christlike character quality each day. Although, I think working on one per week might be better for me because I can’t make much progress in just one day.

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